Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Kvetch, Part Four

with 2 comments

If I really wanted to kvetch, I could go on and on about the tech situation where I teach–we’ve lost two classes to downed computers, and no matter how many times they tell us they’re going to fix them, they don’t.

But let me get to Benjamin Barber, because he finally got to the point I knew was coming–the point where he declares that there are “false choices” (anything the market throws up) and “real choices” (democratically decided policies for the entire community).

Part of my problem with arguments like these (and like I said, I knew this one was coming) is that they honestly do not seem to understand what the issues are. 

For instance, Barber complains that “privatization” in education means that we can choose a lot of commercially-oriented short term things, but are unable to choose well funded public schools, because funding public schools well requires a democratically derived public choice.

But in education, at least, he’s got it backwards.   Parents don’t reject public schools because they’re badly funded, but public schools are badly funded because so many parents reject what they have to offer.  If your local school is not offering what you consider to be a decent education for your children, you’re not going to think it’s a good idea to give it more and more money to pursue policies you think are wrong, inadequate or downright destructive.

Barber also seems to be completely oblivious to exactly how not “democratically decided” a lot of the decisions of modern governments are.  We establish departments and give them the power to regulate, but we are not allowed to vote (or to have our representatives vote) on the content of those regulations, and those regulations may make it completely impossible for citizens to get what they think is best for their towns, their schools and their families.

Every state in the union mandates a public school certification process that requires teachers to be graduates of schools of education or of programs designed to inculcate the values and “expertise” of those schools.  I don’t care how much money my local school gets, it cannot decide to opt out of that certification process and to require a different one. 

But teacher certification is at the top of my list of what is wrong with public schools–it tends to rely heavily on poppscyh versions of often outdated “expertise” about the development of children, and to produce graduates who are at the very bottom of the intellectual ability totem pole at their universities.  That’s not surprising, since anybody who has looked at the content of teacher training courses can figure out in about a second that really smart people aren’t going to put up with them.

In rich towns with great public schools, there’s almost always a combination of three things:  parents with enough money to support heavy taxation to pay people really well to teach; parents with enough education to know exactly what they want; and parents with enough clout to get waivers and find loopholes to dig themselves out of the bureaucratic mess.

The present system that allows me private schools as an alternative doesn’t present me with a “false choice,” but with a real one–I can find a school that does not hire “certified” teachers, one that teaches the Great Books instead of the publum offered in textbooks, one that has high standard of academic achievement that it requires of all students (and not just those in “honors” courses). 

I’ve got a feeling that what’s coming in the next few pages is the declaration that I should stop insisting on all that and accept, instead, what would be “good for the whole community.”

But I think tha what I’m insisting on is good for the whole community, and what is on offer in most public schools is bad.

Other times, Barber seems to harbor the illusion that, if just given the choice, people would pick the “noncommercial” things he favors, although he also seems more than happy to have a ‘democratically elected” government coerce people into those choices, if they won’t make them themselves.

We have the choice of any car we want, he says, but that’s a false choice–we can’t choose to use public transportation instead, or to drive a car that’s really fuel efficient (like a hybrid).

And even if that’s not what we want to choose, those are the choices that would be “best for the community,” so a democratically elected government should legitimately be able to impose them on us. 

But the reason I don’t buy a hybrid–and the reason very few people will unless you make them–has nothing to do with narcissistic consumerism and everything to do with the fact that those cars are difficult and expensive to repair.  My car can be put back into shape in an hour or two by a couple of teen-aged boys with wrenches.  My friend with the hybrid whose  battery needed repair was out $3000.

As for public transportation–well, I really hate to drive, and I look for an alternative whenever I can, but the problem with public transportation is the same as the problem with carpooling.  So you get to work, and there you are, and then there’s a call that your child is sick at school and needs to be picked up, and…in other words, most people find public transport to be clumsy and slow and inconvenient in emergencies and even in day to day scheduling.

The funniest of these forays into “the real choice would be public” is Barber’s defense of public broadcasting as trying to produce programming for everybody.  The fact is that public broadcasting in the US produces broadcasting for virtually nobody–even many of the people who would most logically be in its audience find it boring–and public broadcasting abroad largely produces an Official Opinion Monopoly that gives far less than all the news–never mind all the opinion–that’s actually out there.  Witness the reaction of a French station manager when one of his news show hosts suggested interviewing Alan Dershowitz on the publication of The Case for Israel.  “But there is no case for Israel!” he said.

I always end up here with people like Barber, and I think it’s the affinity fallacy.  Okay, I just made that up.  But I know what I mean.

Here’s the thing–a government that mandates behavior X will feel unfree and tyrannical to anybody who wants to engage in behavior Y, but it will not feel that way to people who prefer behavior X anyway. 

The affinity fallacy explains why people who agitate for free speech when their speech is banned suddenly find it perfectly all right to ban other people’s speech once their speech is approved.  The same with religious practices. 

I also think Barber truly does not realize how much “democratic government” is no longer democratic.  When the teacher’s colleges and teacher certification boards mandate ‘teaching for social justice” or some other fad I don’t favor–and that couldn’t get past a democratically elected anything–I have absolutely no input in the decision and no recourse once the policy has been made.  The barriers to change are literally enormous.  The require not just getting my elected representatives to do something, but reversing the whole  moving-decisions-to-unaccountable-bureaucracies policy that makes up a lot of regulation these days.

Consider the situation at the beginning of the 90s in Connecticut, where schools pushed hard to get “ADHD” sstudents onto Ritalin.  Parents refused because they weren’t really happy with the idea of putting their kids on speed starting in grammar school?  Call DCF and charge them with medical neglect.

Nobody voted for that policy.  The policy could not survive a vote.  But parents lost children, and others were forced to endure monitoring by the state to be sure they were being medicated–and oops, fifteen years later, it turns out that the use of Ritalin in a lot of these cases was probably wrong, and probably harmful for the child.

But fight the departments that forced it?  How?  In most states, parents were not even allowed to sue to stop any acts of DCF at all.

Barber has just gone through this whole thing about how once, when there were monarchies and tyrannies, thinking of government as always potentially tyrannical and freedom as residing in protection from government coercion made sense, but these days–with democracy and elected government–such an attitude really restricts freedom rather than enhances it.

I think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and I’m going to be holding on to my negative rights with both hands.

None of the choices I want to be left alone to make has anything to do with buying stuff in the free market or elsewhere.

And the choice between Ritalin for a ten year old or not, or of teachers educated in the liberal arts instead of “education courses,” is not trivial.

Written by janeh

April 26th, 2010 at 11:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Kvetch, Part Four'

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  1. Fully agree–but only half credit, since this one, as you say, could be seen coming. If you combine Barber’s notion that a government can’t be too intrusive if it’s democratic with Al Gore’s belief in ASSAULT ON REASON that a government is only democratic if the electorate is “suitably informed”–that is, agrees with him, and votes his way–you have the ideological underpinnings of a really nasty oligarchy.

    Easy to agree that a government should be as unintrusive as possible, and decisions made as locally as possible so that even if not every individual can be accomodated, entire communities won’t be outraged.

    The trick is holding to that belief when NO ONE is broadcasting classical music, that child is obviously in need of psychiatric attention/medical care and all the school nurse is doing is sending notes home, and Those People have control of the local school board.

    We didn’t lose the Tenth Ammendment to a vast conspiracy, but to generations determined to make the government do good and willing to cut just a few corners to do so.

    We still seem to have many people like that.


    26 Apr 10 at 5:30 pm

  2. Yea, verily and forsooth. You both sound like you desperately need to read Melanie Phillips’s “The World Turned Upside Down” which is a fine antidote for people like Barber.


    26 Apr 10 at 6:29 pm

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